In defence of dress codes
Remember the case of Nicola Thorp, the receptionist who was sent home without pay from her job at the Management Consultancy firm PwC, after refusing to wear high heels? A resulting petition in support of Thorp garnered over 150,000 signatures, and prompted the Committee’s review.
Having worked as a waitress in the not-too-distant past, I well remember the discomfort of being on your feet for 8 – and often more – hours at a time. As an experiment, I once wore a pedometer for an evening shift and was shocked to find that by the end of the night, I’d clocked up several miles just walking back and forth between the kitchen and the restaurant. This was bad enough in flats – doing it in heels would amount to torture.
But what the Women and Equalities Commission has proposed goes far further than cracking down on extreme pain and discomfort. Although the report rightly highlights the medical trauma that can result from the prolonged wearing of heels in non-sedentary jobs, it later argues for a much broader set of changes, including the possibility of “gender neutral dress codes.”
Obliging employees to wear high heels already amounts to discrimination under the 2010 Equalities Act. The answer to employer abuses is arguably better application of existing law – not the creation of further legislation. Indeed, Thorp’s case was found to be unlawful at the time, and the offending agency has since removed the requirement for women to wear high heels from its dress code.
As the IEA has noted, overly prescriptive legislation in the workplace can create unforeseen problems. There is a genuine danger that the Commission’s proposals would deprive companies of their legitimate right to require staff to present a certain image.
In recent years, the feminist movement has successfully ‘owned’ the issue of dress codes, often presenting them as synonymous with sexism and as a way of policing women’s bodies. But male business attire, with its insistence on suits and ties whatever the weather, is arguably just as restrictive. Away from corporate environments, men are far more likely to be involved in the most dangerous occupations of all – outnumbering women 10:1 in workplace mortality.
Of course, two wrongs don’t make a right – but the point is, it’s actually very common for employees to sacrifice their comfort or pride for money; whether this be wearing make up, cleaning toilets or even dressing up as a sandwich to direct people towards the nearest Subway. All three examples might be considered uncomfortable or demeaning – but none of these acts are coerced. Ultimately, if a business wants people to look a certain way, that’s their prerogative.
Examples of firms which might well fall short of strengthened dress codes include high-end restaurants and nightclubs which have dress requirements for those who visit. In such cases, it would send patrons a hugely contradictory message if employees were able to abide by different rules. I’d have trouble placing my trust in a salon whose hairdressers were all sporting pudding-bowl haircuts. And what about high-end retailers? Should Jimmy Choo or Manolo Blahnik be barred from requiring their staff to wear the latest season’s fashions, long considered an effective form of in-house brand promotion?
This is not to say that restrictive dress codes are a ‘good’ thing. A glance at the report reveals the serious health problems that can result from prolonged wearing of heels – problems that will lead to lower productivity and lower morale.
It does tell us, though, that the market has already developed a mechanism for penalising regressive dress codes. If two employers offered someone the same wage for the same job but only one required the wearing of heels, what sane person would choose the more painful option? Any employer foolish enough to insist on such things will suffer the financial consequences.
With the advent of social media, it’s never been easier to ‘name and shame’ offending employers. The inquiry was itself prompted by a petition, after all – and the PR disaster it gave PwC has surely prompted self-reflection in other corporate environments. Over-rigorous dress codes already carry legal, financial and reputational risks – there is no need for further political interference.